'Dr. Dolittle' Reimagined for Musical Tour

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A fresh musical stage version of the Dr. Dolittle stories is on a U.S. tour. Mark Nootbaar of NPR station WDUQ says this version may be the closest yet to the vision of Hugh Lofting, creator of the veterinarian who talks to the animals.


The veterinarian who talks to the animals is on a yearlong tour of the United States. And we're not talking about commentator Baxter Black. We mean Dr. Dolittle, a new musical stage version, that is, of the story that began as a popular children's book written by Hugh Lofting more than 80 years ago. Dr. Dolittle went onto become a Hollywood movie and a London musical. Mark Nootbaar of member station WDUQ reports that this updated version may be a little closer to Lofting's original intent.

MARK NOOTBAAR reporting:

The new stage version uses many of the same songs and characters seen in the 1967 movie starring Rex Harrison and the London stage production in the 1990s. But composer and lyricist Leslie Bricusse says there are a few new twists. The show starts with the biggest trial the doctor's small town has ever seen.

Mr. LESLIE BRICUSSE (Composer/Lyricist): So we start the show with the dramatic situation where Dr. Dolittle is on trial for murder for having thrown a woman off a cliff. And in fact, what he's thrown off a cliff is a seal who wants to go back to her husband and has been captured by a circus.

(Soundbite from "Dr. Dolittle")

Unidentified Man #1: Order! Order in the court. One more disturbance like this and I will clear the courtroom. John Dolittle, you stand accused of murdering an unknown woman by throwing her off a cliff into the Bristol Channel.

Unidentified Man #2: No, no, no, no, no. You don't understand at all. She wasn't a woman. She was a seal.

Unidentified Man #1: A seal?

Unidentified Man #2: Yes, yes, you know (makes seal sounds).

NOOTBAAR: From there, the story is told through a series of flashbacks.

Mr. BRICUSSE: Which takes us right back to the beginning of when he learned to talk to animals. `Well, Doctor, because you'd prefer animals to people.' So he starts to learn to talk to the animals, which is the first song he sings in the piece, and it develops from there. And it's a much better structure than we had in the movie where it took us an hour to get to that point.

(Soundbite from "Dr. Dolittle")

Unidentified Man #2: Polynesia, think what it would mean if I could talk to the animals. Just imagine it, chatting to a chimp in chimpanzee.

Unidentified Woman #1: Oh, my, oh, me.

Unidentified Man #2: Imagine talking to tiger, chatting to a cheetah. What a neat achievement that would be.

Unidentified Woman #1: Believe you me.

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) If we could talk to the animals...

NOOTBAAR: To make all of the flashbacks work, Bricusse added a new overture and several new songs.

(Soundbite from "Dr. Dolittle")

Unidentified Woman #2: (Singing) This is the world of Dr. Dolittle, the wonderful world of Dr. Dolittle. He has a profound philosophy. If animals can be friends, says he, well, then, why can't we?

NOOTBAAR: The "Dr. Dolittle" books grew out of a series of letters Hugh Lofting sent home to his two children from the front lines of World War I. Chris Lofting was born years later, yet he knows the stories well.

Mr. CHRIS LOFTING (Hugh Lofting's Son): And it was, of course, the messages of war that my father saw in combat and how animals participated, yet did not get the same care and treatment; that it was the message that he was trying to get across. And so, this certainly was a message that he was trying to get across and--but at the same time he was trying to tell what he thought we be an amusing story to his children.

NOOTBAAR: Lofting says the earliest reference he's found to making his father's books into a movie dates back to 1922 when one 20th Century Fox executive sent a letter to another saying he'd read a book that might work on screen. That same studio eventually made the 1967 movie. It flopped; yet Chris Lofting says there have been many people who wanted to try their hand to taking the stories off the page.

Mr. LOFTING: Would-be producer after would-be producer after would-be producer would come forward and say, `I want to do a Dr. Dolittle.' We'd say, `Fine. How are you going to handle the animals?' `Oh, well, there's all sorts of new technology.' `Well, OK. Tell us. How are you going to do it?' And I can't tell you the number of times projects collapsed just because of that, because of this animal thing. And if you do not make that connection between the animal world and the human world, it doesn't work.

NOOTBAAR: In the original movie, live animals were made to look as if they were talking, and the first stage show used animatronics. But for the current version, the producers turned to Ann Hould-Ward. She designed costumes for a long list of Broadway shows, including "Into The Woods" and "Beauty and the Beast." But she says she could not sleep at night fretting over this assignment.

Ms. ANN HOULD-WARD (Costume Designer): And I kept having nightmares every night of this giant half-bird, half-person running around after me and knowing that that was not the way to approach Dr. Dolittle.

NOOTBAAR: She then came upon the idea of using Hugh Lofting's own artwork.

Ms. HOULD-WARD: We as readers are making up a look in our own minds as we read a book. And here was a person who was writing that book and making up this fantastical world which he did illustrate, but people had passed over, hadn't gone back to really look at that. So I became very interested in acquiring the books to see if this was really an idea that could advance. And I thought back to my nightmare of this giant bird and I said, `No, Dr. Dolittle must talk to a parrot that's parrot-sized.' So that became the thought of a puppet.

NOOTBAAR: Hould-Ward immediately turned to "Lion King" puppet creator Michael Curry, and they came up with a solution.

Ms. HOULD-WARD: The actor became what we call the soul of the puppet, and so the actor is operating that puppet but also responding as the thought-mind process of the animal.

NOOTBAAR: For example, the human controlling Dr. Dolittle's dog Jip sports a shaggy mop that gets petted about as much as the puppet does. Hould-Ward's work has helped composer and lyricist Leslie Bricusse get closer to the original than he ever has before.

Mr. BRICUSSE: The concept of the animals each having a soul and the soul is a human being.

NOOTBAAR: Yet, it also provides an ironic twist to creator Hugh Lofting's original dilemma.

(Soundbite from "Dr. Dolittle")

Unidentified Man #1: Has the witness anything further to say?

Unidentified Man #2: Yes. Yes, I have. I do not understand the human race that has so little love for creatures with a different face. Treating animals like people is no madness nor disgrace. I do not understand the human race.

NOOTBAAR: This story may have been born nearly 90 years ago, but Dr. Dolittle's not so subtle message of animal life and humane treatment seems to be resonating with new audiences. The show continues its so-far popular national tour through June.

For NPR News, I'm Mark Nootbaar in Pittsburgh.

(Soundbite from "Dr. Dolittle")

Unidentified Man #2: I mean, why do we treat animals like animals? How can people be so inhumane? Cows and chickens work to ...(unintelligible) us. Dogs and horses show they need us. And though cats don't always heed us, their affection is plain.

MONTAGNE: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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